When Barack Obama was president, conservatives criticized him endlessly for alienating allies and coddling adversaries. A mere week after swearing the oath of office in January 2009, Obama began what opponents would soon term his “apology tour” with an interview to an Arab-language television network in which he uttered the following anodyne statement: “We have not been perfect.” He made similar admissions in France and at a Summit of the Americas.
While conservative outrage over this rhetorical self-flagellation was overwrought, the critique was more valid when applied to the actual policies. Obama’s resolve to put “daylight” between Israel and the United States—needlessly insisting, early in his administration, on a West Bank settlement freeze as a precondition to negotiations that not even the Palestinians had demanded—led to a situation today in which Israelis and Palestinians are further away from each other than before he entered the White House. Additionally, Obama’s quest for an Iranian nuclear deal weakened America’s relationships with Sunni Arab allies who rightly fear Tehran’s hegemonic ambitions, and his “reset” with Russia was perceived across Central and Eastern Europe as rewarding Moscow for its invasion and occupation of Georgia the year prior.
Whatever the merits of this appraisal, conservatives voiced it, and voiced it loud. And they seemed to believe it sincerely; robust support for American allies and wariness if not outright hostility toward her enemies being the sine qua non of Republican foreign policy for decades. According to the GOP, it’s Democrats who have been more willing to appease adversaries. A foundational text in this regard is a 1979 essay by Jeanne Kirkpatrick entitled “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” which assailed the Carter administration for pressuring pro-American authoritarian regimes while coddling anti-American totalitarian ones. It caught the eye of a man named Ronald Reagan, who later made Kirkpatrick his ambassador to the United Nations.
Given this intellectual history, it is frankly astonishing to witness the insouciance of so many Republicans in the face of Donald Trump’s repeated, gratuitous, and utterly pointless insults to a bevy of steadfast American allies, the most recent being Germany and her Chancellor Angela Merkel. On the campaign trail, there was no world leader whom Trump criticized more often, or in more vituperative terms, than she. Trump did so always in the context of her welcoming policy toward Syrian migrants, a line of attack solely intended for domestic political consumption, the Republican base not being particularly keen on adherents of the Mohammedan faith. Never mind that mass Muslim immigration into the United States is highly implausible, since our country is bordered by two oceans and the nearest Muslim country sits thousands of miles away. For Trump, Merkel ultimately served the purpose of political piñata.
And so the world was treated to a disgraceful spectacle this month in the Oval Office. An anxious Merkel—who had reportedly spent months preparing for this meeting, reading decades-old interviews Trump gave to Playboy and watching hours of his campaign soliloquies—politely asked the president if he would submit to a handshake before the flashing cameras. He sat there unmoved.
It wasn’t long ago that conservatives railed against Obama for his shabby treatment of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; their silence in the face of this surly and undignified treatment of the German chancellor retroactively renders those criticisms worthless. Merkel, who in her 12 years as chancellor has deftly navigated rocky relationships with the likes of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s neo-Ottoman Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is fortunately experienced in the handling of insecure men with behavioral issues.
Merkel is the last person an American president should be alienating. Raised in the former communist East Germany, she is instinctively pro-American, to the point where she underplayed a humiliating scandal several years ago involving an alleged (but never proven) National Security Agency wiretap of her personal cellphone.
The German public would have liked nothing more than to see its chancellor rail against an arrogant and uncontrollable American surveillance state, but Merkel, innately valuing the importance of the trans-Atlantic relationship and aware of how unscrupulous actors like WikiLeaks were cynically trying to undermine it, refused.
Understanding any of this diplomatic nuance would be far too much to expect of our president, who, at a joint press conference with Merkel following their frosty Oval Office photo-op, made light of the whole affair by joking that both he and his German counterpart “at least had something in common” in that they were both wiretapped by Barack Obama, a reference to the baseless claim that his predecessor had ordered surveillance of Trump Tower.
Which brings us to the second American ally Trump managed to offend in a single press conference. A day before the Merkel-Trump meeting, White House press secretary Sean Spicer suggested that it was GCHQ, Britain’s equivalent of the NSA, that carried out the wiretap at the behest of then-President Obama. His source? “Judge” Andrew Napolitano, a Fox News television personality who endorses the canard that World Trade Center Building 7 was brought down in a controlled explosion perpetrated by the U.S. government. Spicer’s repetition of this nonsense provoked an unprecedented rebuke from GCHQ, which since World War II has been a constituent member of the Anglophone “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing partnership alongside the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
Trump’s hostility toward allies is an extension of his election-year rhetoric. Throughout the campaign, Trump seemed to spend as much time attacking America’s friends as he did its adversaries. Japan and South Korea regularly came in for disparagement over their supposed failure to “pay” the United States for hosting our military forces on their territory, despite the fact that they pay billions for this express purpose.
Trump’s other bugbear is NATO, which he essentially portrays as a form of American charity to feckless Europeans. Here it’s worth mentioning that the first and only time NATO has ever invoked its Article 5 collective defense clause was after 9/11, when the alliance unanimously declared that the terrorist attacks against the United States were an attack on all. NATO members fulfilled this pledge when they sent their soldiers to fight and die alongside ours in Afghanistan.
But to the colossally ungrateful Trump, NATO is “obsolete.” Never once on the campaign trail did he acknowledge the alliance’s solidarity with America after 9/11. On the contrary, Trump claimed that NATO “failed to deal adequately with terrorism” when its sole invocation of collective defense was in response to a terrorist attack on American soil.
Trump’s contemptible treatment of American allies is even more appalling in light of his reverence for America’s greatest geopolitical foe, Russia, and its war criminal president. Listening to Trump, you would think that a lifelong KGB officer who has devoted himself to undermining the United States is a friend, while the leader of democratic ally who has endured political costs for defending her nation’s alliance with America is an adversary. Add to this Trump’s categorical denigration of American exceptionalism, far more explicit than anything Barack Obama ever said about the concept, and his penchant for moral equivocations regarding America and Russia that Noam Chomsky lauds as “salutary,” and you have an American president who ought induce shame in every flag waving Republican patriot.